This landmark exhibition, spanning 5,000 years across the globe, explores one of humankind’s greatest achievements – the act of writing.

From carved stone inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and early printed works to beautiful calligraphy, iconic fonts and emojis, the exhibition will deconstruct the act of writing and consider its future in the digital age.

Beginning with the origins of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and the Americas, the exhibition will chart the evolution of writing through technology and innovation with examples from over 30 different writing systems, including Greek, Chinese and Arabic. It will explore how writing can be personal, functional, beautiful or political and will challenge our preconceptions of what writing is through examples of writing as art, expression and instruction.

Works by famous hands, such as the final diary entry by Scott of the Antarctic and James Joyce’s autograph notes for Ulysses, will sit alongside tools belonging to unknown everyday people, including early 19th-century Burmese tattooing instruments and modern reed pens, which will be seen in new light.

Many items will be going on display for the first time and exhibition highlights include an 1,800-year-old ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters; the first book printed in England, Caxton’s 1476-7 printing of The Canterbury Tales; a 60,000-strong petition from 1905 protesting against the first partition of Bengal, signed in Bengali and English; Mozart’s catalogue of his complete musical works from 1784-1791, featuring his handwriting and musical notation; and Alexander Fleming’s autograph notebook recording his discovery of penicillin from 1928.

British Library

96 Euston Road, London, Greater London, NW1 2DB

01937 546546


Opening times

Main building

Mon – Thu, 9.30am – 8pm

Fri, 9.30am –​6pm (Sat until 5pm)

​Sun, 11am-5pm

Treasures Gallery and PACCAR exhibitions

Tue –Thu, 9.30am-8pm, Mon & Fri until 6pm, Sat until 5pm, Sun 11am – 5pm

Free to all

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